How is baking macaroons like a software project?

Macarons

Today I helped my daughter bake her first macaroons (and mine, too). The whole process with its setbacks and frustrations suddenly reminded me of something I have more experience with than macaroons – building software applications.

How these two processes could be similar, you might ask? Let me count off a few points.

First, the timing for the request “can we please, please bake some macaroons today” was not great. We’ve already planned a visit to the museum, and cooking of the dinner would already be delayed. I gave up as I wanted to be nice to my customer and felt a little guilty that I never have time for baking. Now, as I was busy with dinner, I also had to deal with a “macaroon project” on the side, and it was proving to be more than I could handle.

Point one: a new project is started even though other projects, planned and approved earlier, are not completed yet. As a result, resources that were already busy are now asked to squeeze one more project in.

The recipe required a couple of non-standard ingredients, such as almond flour (which luckily we had), and food coloring paste (which I’ve never even knew existed). It turned out that liquid food coloring would liquefy the flour mixture which is a no-no for macaroons. So I had to make a mad dash to a baking specialty store to find the magic ingredient.

Point two: a project starts even before there is a good understanding of what special tools and technologies (or licenses, or integrations, or hardware) would be required. The project then gets delayed or spends extra money on urgent procurements.

As my daughter is very independent and wants to show me she can do almost everything herself, she starts to follow the directions, getting ingredients off the shelves and mixing them. Right away I can see that we need to straighten out some terminology. “No – “whisk the egg whites” means you should use the electric mixer. It’s pretty hard to do it by hand”. “Confectioner’s sugar is the icing sugar, and granulated sugar is regular white”. “You have to use the big sieve to sift the flour, not the one we use for tea leaves”.

Point three: Without consistent terminology, glossary and common language, expect some project tasks to get off track.

Some of the baking steps are learned with experience. For example, folding flour mixture into whisked egg whites needs to be done gently. Since I’m trying to focus on dinner, almost too late I yelp: “Folding means gently, or all your whisking effort will be wasted. Here, let me show you.”

Point four: New projects might have sufficient new resources but lacking a SME with experience and knowledge. When SMEs are stretched thin, new project resources cannot tap into their expertise which impacts both the timelines and the quality.

Once the batter is done and we check the next step, it turns out that macaroons need to sit on a baking sheet for 30 min “to dry” before you can bake them. This totally ruins our timing. We turn off the pre-heated stove and I curse at myself for not taking time to read the complete directions end to end before starting. Maybe if I could just focus on baking…

Point five: Lack of planning, especially when projects are rushed to “use the funding” or to improve “speed to market”, can result in unplanned delays. Those delays that could have been foreseen, have we taken the time to analyze what is required, understand dependencies, and plan properly.

With all these baking setbacks, I become frustrated and feel a bit hassled. I can’t focus on one task at time, dirty dishes pile up, there is no clean space on the counter, and we have too many timers to keep track of. The one-on-one baking time does not feel like enjoyment of doing something together, instead I’m annoyed and just want to get it done. I don’t really care how well the macaroons come out, I just want them to come out of the oven and get off my counter.

Point six: Lack of proper scheduling and resource planning results in stress, which in turn impacts quality and may result in a sub-par final product.

We have to interrupt the baking process to eat dinner. All in all, with all the setbacks it takes us much longer to finish than the recipe claimed. The amount of cookies that we’ve produced is not that impressive and all I want to say is “All that work for just these measly twenty macaroons?”

Point seven: Projects typically underplan and overpromise. Many plans start with the most optimistic timeline and forget to include contingency, which is almost always required.

After the macaroons are assembled (you use the filling to press two cookies together), we have a lot of extra pink icing left. Looks like the recipe overestimated how much icing would be needed. I know from experience that the icing will stay in the fridge for a few days, and then inevitably end its life in compost. Admittedly it looks nice, but it’s mostly butter and nobody is going to want to eat pink butter later.

Point eight: Many projects produce too many “nice to have” requirements that will end up unused.

When we are finally done, I say “Well, these macaroons were certainly a lot of work. Let’s plan in advance next time”.  To which my daughter answers: “By the way, mom, they are “macarons”, not “macaroons”. Macaroons are made with coconuts”. Not only was the baking stressful, but all the time I was misled (or confused) about what we were actually making!

Point nine: Never assume you know what the objectives of the project are and what final product it is supposed to deliver. Check, confirm and validate the goals and the requirements before going ahead and building something.

After I’ve learned that we were actually making macarons, not macaroons, my mood suddenly lightened. I could see myself getting all upset and stressed and missing the main point. This is when I got the idea for this article – a way to take advantage of this not so great experience, make fun of it, and share with others.

Plus, I do know more now about baking macarons, but next time it will probably be a new recipe…

Point ten: After every project, there will be some lessons learned. We should make time and effort to learn from our mistakes and previous experience. We might be surprised how a mistake or a failure can generate something new and positive, if we look at it from the right angle.

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